20 January 2022

Bloody Scotland

 My dad's reaction to genealogy ranged between dismissal and fantasy. When I was quite small, I remember asking him about our more distant relatives. "Horse and cattle thieves," he said promptly. That, with the addition of the detail that three of his four grandparents had lived into their nineties, was the sum total of his genealogical information until, years later, assisting our son with a school project, he invented Don Alonzo Law, surviver of the Spanish Armada, to account for the "Iberian Influence" in Scotland and for our dark hair and eyes.

Well, a grain of truth in both cases, as there was a prehistoric connection with the Iberian peninsula, and the Laws were lowland people originally and probably engaged in one way or the other with the long unrest between Scotland and England. 

Whether or not Dad's throwaway remark was a sign of my future career in literary crime, I was certainly not surprised when Scandinavian Noir was followed a few years later with the recognition of what wags called " Tartan Noir." Far from being a late comer to the mystery game, Scotland had long played an important role in the development of our favorite genre.

Consider that the world's most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, was not only written by Edinburgh-born and bred Arthur Conan Doyle, but was inspired by one of Doyle's medical school professors, Joseph Bell. Add Robert Louis Stevenson, who, besides historical thrillers, wrote the greatest of all supernatural mysteries, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His slightly later countryman, John Buchan, helped create the modern thriller with The thirty-nine Steps, while working in government service, including a stint as Governor General of Canada.

All three have had important successors. Ian Rankin and Val McDermid are probably best known to Tartan Noir fans, but they are not alone on the evidence of Bloody Scotland, a recent anthology edited by James Crawford, publisher at Historic Environment Scotland, a heritage organization in charge of some 300 sites and buildings. The anthology presents an interesting group of mystery writers, Scots and a few of what my Aberdonian relatives would call Sassanachs: English who write about or in Scotland. 

Most of the usual suspects are included with the exceptions of Rankin, Kate Atkinson and Alexander McCall Smith. Each writer has taken one of the organization's properties, ranging from pre-historic Mousa Broch in the Shetlands (Anne Cleeves naturally) to The Forth Bridge (Doug Johnstone) and Edinburgh Castle (Denise Mina – a truly terrifying story). 

Because the structuring device of the anthology is architectural and archeological rather than thematic, Bloody Scotland gives an unusual range of styles and types of stories.

We do have a revenge tale and a rather unusual serial killer, but we also get a glimpse of Viking life, a contemporary fellow coming undone, a frighteningly feral child, a murder at an early textile plant, and what is probably the closest one can come to a comic hostage taking.

As a result the mood ranges from gruesome to understated with plenty of stylistic variety. Historic Environment Scotland probably conceived this volume as a fundraiser, and there is certainly a story for just about every taste. Including the frankly antiquarian. 

It will not spoil Craig Robertson's "The Twa Corbies of Cardross" to say it references a work in one of Scotland's earlier claims to literature: the famous border ballads. Sir Walter Scott collected many of these and published them in The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, first edition 1802. That puts "Twa Corbies" (Two Ravens), an account of a murder in a handful of stanzas, a few centuries ahead of Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"

Robertson updates this stark little ditty and recasts it in prose but he keeps the two ravens, big carrion-feeding corvids for the non-birder, showing that in our genre, at least, there's always a place for a good plot and good detectives.

My Madame Selina mystery stories about a post Civil War spiritualist medium in New York City have been issued as an ebook on Kindle. Ten mysteries and a novella featuring Madame Selina and her useful young assistant Nip Thompkins are available on Amazon.

19 January 2022

Go Poe! Yo ho ho!

  Joyous felicitations of the season.  I wish all of you a happy Edgar Allan Poe's birthday!  He entered this world of wonders on January 19, 1809.  I trust that in his honor today you will all do something appropriately Poe-ish, such as:

* Marry your thirteen-year-old cousin.

* Become a champion broad-jumper.

* Get court-martialed out of West Point.

* Inspire Robert Louis Stevenson to write Treasure Island, thereby becoming godfather to what everyone imagines is the way pirates spoke. 

* Apply for a position as a customs official and then fail to show up for the interview.

* Write the only poem to inspire the name of a professional football team.

* Join the army and become a sergeant major, the highest  rank available to a non-commissioned  officer.

* Be the author of 425 movies, according to IMDB

* Drop out of college due to insufficient funds.  (This may be the easiest item on the list for modern Americans.)

* Get fired from an editing job for drunkenness.

* Write an essay that seems to describe the Big Bang Theory, eighty years before it was formally explained. 

* Die at age 40 after being found wandering around Baltimore in someone else's clothes.

* Be slandered as a madman in your obituary by a rival who also became your literary executor. 

Or if all that seem like too much hassle, how about this easy one?

* Invent a genre of literature that is still going strong 170 years after your death, and have its major award named in your honor.  (And congratulations to everyone who was nominated for an Edgar today!)

Happy 213th, Eddy.  You don't look a day over 200.

18 January 2022

My American Project – Where does the story take place?

Dutch author Anne van Doorn first joined us back in August. He is a regular reader and commentator here at SleuthSayers. He's also a friend of mine. I'm pleased to share his guest column with you today.
— Barb Goffman

My American Project – Where does the story take place?

 by Anne van Doorn

When I challenged myself to write a mystery novel in American English, I confronted myself with an important question: where will my story take place? Most writers would recommend staying on familiar ground. Write about what you know. I’ve followed that advice for over twenty years. Many of my stories are set in the area where I live, in the Netherlands.

However, I discovered that few people outside this area are interested in stories taking place here. At least, bookstore owners elsewhere don’t sell my books. National newspapers don’t pay attention to them—and my country is roughly the size of New Jersey. I honestly don’t think anyone would be interested in a mystery novel set in my area, written in American English. That’s just too…outlandish.

However, write about what you know is solid advice. That's why I’ve decided to set my story in the only part of the United States I’ve ever visited: Manhattan, a borough of New York City. Even though it has been ten years ago now, in April 2011, I still have vivid memories of my time there. I have many photos and some video footage to refresh my memory. I stayed near the UN Headquarters, in a small apartment in the New York Tower on East 39th Street, just off First Avenue. I walked the streets, traveled on the subway, rode the avenues and streets, and saw many places, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New Amsterdam Theatre to see Mary Poppins the Musical. Central Park was like a magnet to me.

The advantages

My choice for Manhattan offers, in addition to my experiences, some advantages. First and foremost, everyone around the world knows New York, whether they have visited the city or not. It’s easy for a reader to imagine the place. We’ve all seen pictures of the high-rises, the avenues, the bridges spanning the East River and the Hudson. I don’t choose New York to gain a readership there, but for everybody’s familiarity with it. The readers who love the kind of story I want to write—the whodunit—will recognize the city in their mind’s eye.

A second advantage is that New York City is a town of immigrants and ex-pats. For me, as a Dutchman, it would be difficult to write convincingly about Americans in the rural parts of the country. New York City, however, is a melting pot of nationalities and cultures. Perhaps portraying the main character with European roots—a first- or second-generation American—is easier. If he behaves in a non-American way, it’s easy to understand why. Besides, didn’t Agatha Christie have huge success with her novels about a Belgian refugee living in England? And what about our very own Josh Pachter? Didn’t he write stories about Mahboob Chaudri, a Pakistani working as police officer in Bahrain? I think he did that convincingly—an inspiring example!

A third advantage: there are tons of information on the internet: photos, videos, and firsthand experiences, including about a place I once stayed. Visiting Google Maps allows me to read dozens of reviews written by people living there. Did you know there are dead cockroaches in the laundry room? And the elevators are consistently out of order. That’s what the reviews say, at least. Oh, the internet is a voyeuristic delight!

And last but not least, wasn’t Manhattan once a colony of the Netherlands? I think it’s appropriate to firmly plant a Dutch flag on New York soil, again!

 Discovering the city

I haven’t decided yet what part of Manhattan I'll use as a base for my American Project. But what I could already do is study how other writers portray the city and its police force. I don’t think I will fool the New Yorker into believing I’m one of them, but I want to get as close as possible.

Since I started working on the American Project, I’ve read and learned from the Rex Stout and Ellery Queen books. What strikes me is that their descriptions of the city are scarce. But with only a few of them, they conjure up recognizable images. I think that’s the way to go, as I want to write a plot-oriented story—definitely not a travel guide!

On my TBR-pile are books about New York that will help me discover interesting places. In this regard, my friends, I can do with recommendations. Which book should I buy to get to know New York? What websites are worth checking out? Do you know a YouTube channel that shows Manhattan as it is: the good, the bad, the ugly?

17 January 2022

Next to Last Step

I always read my work aloud as the last step in my editing/revision, but there's one last step I take before that. It's the "Readability Statistics" in the review menu of Microsoft word. When I "Review" with "spelling and grammar check," this chart appears after I've made or ignored all the corrections. This is after my final pass-through on the most recent Woody Guthrie novel, Words of Love.

We see a word count, character (letter) count, sentence count, paragraphs, sentences per paragraph, words per sentence, and characters (letters) per word. I don't pay much attention to these, but Microsoft uses them to determine the values below them: Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level. The grade level is in grade and months as a decimal : 7.3 means seventh-grade, third month.

The Reading ease is the percentage of readers at that grade level who can understand that passage. Basically, long sentences and long words are harder to understand, especially if they appear in a long paragraph. My average paragraph is probably five or six sentences. But sometimes, you want something longer.

This is the same tool applied to a long paragraph at the beginning of the late Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, which tells how she rebuilt her life after both her husband and grown daughter died unexpectedly within months of each other. John Gregory Dunne suffered a heart attack, and she called 911.

This paragraph is 310 words, or 23 sentences long, more what I think of as Henry James or James Joyce terrain. You could "correctly" divide it into several shorter ones, but Didion uses one long paragraph to show how the events and her thoughts jumble in a huge confusing rush. Her last understated sentence wraps everything up like a hammer blow to the chest.

That long paragraph is short words, averaging four characters each, and 13 words per sentence. It works out to fifth-grade-seventh-month reading level, and 77.9 % of readers at that level being able to understand it.

Reading level is somewhat arbitrary. It uses the number of syllables in a 100-word sample to measure level with no regard to content. Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History of Time occasionally sounds like My Weekly Reader because the text tries to reduce complex math and quantum physics to layman's terms.

All of this is interesting, but SO WHAT? Well, look at the last statistic on the chart. I care about it because it shows how your writing will "sound." It's the percentage of PASSIVE verbs in your selection. Didion's is 8.6, which is very high, but it's appropriate because she is powerless in the scene, at the mercy of forces beyond her control. Strunk and White say to use the active rather than the passive voice, but Strunk made that same distinction.

My novels are usually at about a 4th grade reading level (It doesn't sound dumb, trust me) and I strive for no more than 2% passive verbs. Summaries and shorter selections tend to be higher. Most of my blogs are more, but I can live with it. For fun, type about 200 words from Hemingway, Crane, King, Fitzgerald, Lippman, Rozan, or Child into your computer and see what their stats are.

The newer Microsoft programs include the readability stats in the review. If you have an older Microsoft program, you can add that command in your editing. I'm not sure you can do it with a MAC, because I've never used one. Here's how:

Click on the little carat to the right of your command icons, and you'll see the drop-down menu. Click on the top line "customize quick access toolbar." (Picture on the left).

Then highlight "More commands," at the bottom of the drop-down list. That's the picture below this paragraph.

When you choose "More commands," you'll get another screen with "quick access toolbar" highlighted, and a long list of commands to the right of that.

At the top of that list, the picture below this paragraph, you'll see "popular commands." Click on the arrow to the right of it, and you'll get three choices. Click on "All Commands."

This is what you'll see, a very long list. Scroll down to Readability Statistics (It may have a new name now, Microsoft keeps changing it, so I have to look for it every time I get a new computer. It might be Reading View Research now, or something else).

When you find it, highlight it, then click "Add," the button in the middle between the two columns. The command will appear in the right hand column, which is the commands you use, and you're ready to go.

Obviously, since this is a computer program and we all use idioms in our writing, it's not foolproof. But I like to have a sense of how active or passive a work is before I do the final read-through-aloud. If I see a lot of passive verbs, I make a point of changing some to active. I don't take the reading level too seriously because it's so arbitrary. Once upon a time, the New York Times read at about a tenth-grade level, but that was decades ago. I have no idea what it– or any other publication– reads at now.

The stats give me a sense of how my writing SOUNDS, and that's crucial to me. I want it to sound like a human voice speaking.

Remember Elmore Leonard's rule: If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.

16 January 2022

Company Town, Part 1

A staple of Westerns features small towns embroiled in takeovers by criminal gangs or religious cults or power-hungry land/cattle/mining/oil/railroad barons not above skulduggery, the Greek tragedies of our era: Giant, Billy Jack, There Will Be Blood, Dallas, Yellowstone. Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood crafted the movie subgenera into a cottage industry.

In modern times, we need look no further than Florida. Numerous developers and con artists have molded lands into their image. Some built monuments to themselves… literally castles. Roughly a dozen castles (including Cinderella’s) dot the Florida landscape. Two infamous local examples have been torched with redneck lightning in recent years, Glenn W Turner’s Turner Castle in Winter Park and the scandalous Mikey Busey’s Sausage Castle in St. Cloud. (Home of Sharon, who prompted this two-part series by sending me the following CIA article.)

Sanibel postcard


Friends in Minnesota loved vacationing on Sanibel Island, which was the extent of my knowledge at the time. It gives new meaning to ‘company town’, assuming you’re au fait with espionage parlance.

I confess I wasn’t familiar with author Randy Wayne White’s Marion ‘Doc’ Ford series. The protagonist is a marine biologist and not-so-retired former spy based in– you guessed it– Sanibel.

It turns out the island is loaded with former spies including some brought out of retirement from time to time. And when backed into a corner by county commissioners, they came out fighting. They built this city, not so much brick by brick, but with legal filings: “Don’t condo our island, you snot-wipes!”

So enjoy the article before we move on.

Stereotyping an Article

The COVID quarantine has taught me something about myself– I’m a mystery character cliché. The forced alone-time drives some people crazy, but others thrive. I’m one of the latter– solitude suits me. Roots probably extend back to childhood where plowing and planting, haying and harvesting, feeding, milking and mucking didn’t provide time or proximity to people. And it stuck.

But it worries me. The age line is very fine between solitude guy and crazy old coot.

Live on a boat, live on a secluded island, for me that’s paradise. As delineated below, one person’s heaven is another man’s hell.

15 January 2022

A Hundred a Day, and Expenses

A funny thing happened to me three years ago: I wrote my first contemporary private-eye story. At that point I'd been writing short stories for 25 years, mostly mystery/crime/suspense, but during that time I'd written and published only two PI stories--both of them about an investigator with an office in San Francisco in the 1880s. In other words, Westerns. I'm not sure why I had avoided 20th- and 21st-century PIs; I love puzzles of every kind, and I'd certainly read and seen a lot of fictional private detectives in novels, stories, movies, and TV--Holmes, Poirot, McGee, Spade, Hammer, Spenser, Robicheaux, Mannix, Magnum, Rockford, Millhone, Scudder, Marlowe, etc. Looking back on it now, I wonder if I was afraid of falling into the trap of using too many old and tired PI cliches. I didn't want to only create dark and moody stories with cheap offices, trenchcoats, cigarettes, AA meetings, whacks on the noggin from behind, helpful buddies on the police force, and grieving-widow clients. That's the only reason I can come up with, for not attempting stories closer to the present day.

What finally forced me further into the subgenre was an invitation from writer/editor/friend Michael Bracken in early 2019, or thereabouts, to write a story for a PI anthology called The Eyes of Texas (one of the best double-meaning titles I'd ever heard). As I recall, the only firm requirement, except for some length guidelines, was that the story's protagonist had to be a private investigator in the Lone Star State. I figured I should be able to handle that. 

The whole process turned out to be fun. I quickly came up with a plot I liked, and made sure my hero--although he did have a pretty crappy office--wasn't a drunk, didn't run around in an overcoat and a bad mood, didn't smoke, wasn't a womanizer, had no ex-partners to fall back on in the PD, and had a client who was neither widowed nor grieving. He wasn't a wimp, though; he did have a moral code, and carried a gun that he used a few times in the plot. The story was called "Triangles," which sort of had a triple meaning, and the anthology was published in September 2019, just in time for the Dallas Bouchercon. 

Since then, I've written and sold PI short stories to several magazines and anthologies. Two contemporary stories in the same "series" were published in Black Cat Mystery Magazine (two years ago) and in Strand Magazine (last month), and two more in that series are finished and yet to be submitted. Also, a standalone story featuring a 1940s PI in New Orleans has been accepted and is upcoming in a themed anthology later this year, another with a '60s Detroit PI is scheduled for a second anthology, and I'm now working on a Prohibition PI story set in the early '30s for an antho with a May deadline. And I've found that all of these have been great fun to put together, in a way that's somehow different from my usual mystery/crime writing.

What's your history with PI stories/novels? Have you written or published any? Are any planned or in the works? If you do write them, are they usually installments in a series? If short stories, are they targeted for magazines or for anthologies? Were you, like me, hesitant at first to try that subgenre? Have you had any luck with them at the top mystery markets?

As a writer with dim but enjoyable memories of private-eye TV shows like Peter Gunn and Richard Diamond and 77 Sunset Strip (I'm humming that theme music now), I can't leave this subject without mentioning favorite PI movies. My top six are, in order: Chinatown (1974), Knives Out (2019), Harper (1966), Night Moves (1975), The Long Goodbye (1973), and Twilight (1998). 

How can you not love PIs? Sure, the daily fees have gone up, over the years, and the expenses too, but their strange adventures remain fun to read, and watch. And write about.

In closing, here's a silly poem of mine that was published in the Spring/Summer 1997 issue of Mystery Time, a magazine some of you might remember. It's called "A Public Look at Private Eyes":

Most fictional private detectives are men

(And are always unmarried, of course); 

They have rugged last names and a grumpy old friend

Who's a homicide cop on the force.

They're hit on the head every chapter or two

But they suffer no lasting effects,

And survive gunshot wounds that would kill me or you

While they spellbind the Opposite Sex.

Though they never earn much, PIs always have cash

To persuade some informant to leak

More strange and enlightening clues in a flash

Than the cops could obtain in a week.

Knowing that, our detective will often proceed

To the villain's mysterious lair,

Where he's captured, along with his romantic lead

(Don't ask me what she's doing there).

But all's well--the old pal in the local PD

Will at last come to help save the day;

For the heroes aren't killed off in fiction, you see--

Like the cops, sequels aren't far away.

And neither am I. See you in two weeks.

14 January 2022

When to set a story

The six series characters I write about are set in different times, from the 1880s through today. The fast pace of things today with science and technology and the evolution of humans from the slower-paced 20th Century to the run-amok 21st Century, I find myself preferring to write stories and novels set back in time. The research needed to write stories set in the 19th Century is time consuming but keeps me focused on the characters and the story rather than what's happening today.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, it took me a while to write a story set around that time. Janet Hutchings at Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine inspired me to write a Katrina story for EQMM's Salute to New Orleans Issue (Vol. 128, No 5, Nov 2006). It was a dynamite issue and I was happy to see my story in it.

I've written a few Katrina and Hurricane Rita stories after. Eight years after Katrina, I finally wrote a Katrina novel – City of Secrets (2013). Needed time to reflect.

Which is why I have written nothing about the pandemic and don't plan to anytime soon. Y'all can to that and I see many of you have done a good job with it.

Which brings me to the topic of this piece – when to set a story.

Editor Malcolm Cowley explained the four stages of writing a story:

1. The Germ of the Story where the idea for the story inspires a writer

2. The Conscious Meditation where the writer thinks of a way to present the story

3. The First Draft where the writer writes the story

4. The Rewrite where the writer gets it right 

When a writer like me gets inspired, I need to figure which character is right for the story. And just as importantly, when do I set the story. A product of the last half of the 20th Century, I am more comfortable writing about that time. I know the people (I am one) and what was going on then. My history degree helps me go back in time with my stories set in the 19th Century.

I'll probably still write stuff set in the 21st Century but the main characters with not be Gen X or Millenials. For sure, dude.

Side Note:

The sculpture Mackenzie, a product of my artist/sculptor son and the LSU School of Art, stood in our front yard since 2011. We used it on the cover of City of Secrets.

Mackenzie was destroyed last year by Hurricane Ida when she blew a large sweetgum tree across our yard.

Hey, the tree trunk missed our house at least.

That's all for now.


13 January 2022

An After-Christmas Story

One of the fun things about the pre-Christmas television extravaganza is all the ads for things that you might never have thought of as good Christmas presents.  The brand-new car with giant bow, for example, would never have happened in my family, nor ever will.  

One of my favorites was the gift of Botox "for lines" - with supposedly 30-something actresses (played by, probably, teenagers) rejoicing at this touching proof of her husband's care instead of hitting him up the side of the head and checking his internet history and cookies. Every time it ran - which was often, I made up a new slogan for it:

"Botox: so that you never have to worry that your forehead moving again."

"Botox: make your face match your Chico's!"  

"Botox: because wrinkles are icky." 

"Botox: because they told me you'd love it." 

There was also the perennial ads saying, "Give the gift of lottery tickets to everyone on your list!" Because yeah, that way they get to know exactly how much money you're willing to spend on them -  three dollars.  Five, if you put it in a card. 

Speaking of gambling, the Royal River Casino, was advertising just about every hour on the hour that with every "100 points" you earned gambling, you'd get a piece of cookware!  Gamble your Christmas money away and get a free Dutch oven!  Sauce pan!  A skillet!  And then you can go home, and give your spouse that skillet as a Christmas present, which s/he may use as in the reaction to Botox for Christmas above.

BTW, this reminded me of Jean Shepherd's In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. I read this when I was a teenager, and loved it. The movie, A Christmas Story, only included a minimum of the book, but I understand another one - My Summer Story - included my favorite part, which was the Great Free Dish Giveaway.  

Now when I was a kid, besides Green Stamps at the grocery store, you could get glassware and/or dishes at the gas station (B.C. and Flintstone were popular glassware, and we had some of that). You could also get dishes and/or towels in laundry detergent, but my mother never bought those, because the dish/towel usually took up most of the box. Jean Shepherd's story is a classic of the giveaway with purchase sales technique: 

"Finally the doors opened and the mob surged forward. The Box Office roared with activity as we pushed and stumbled toward the marquee. Just inside the door Mr. Doppler and two ushers stood, packing cases stacked behind them, handing out to each lady a beautiful, gleaming butter dish. 

"What a start! Doppler, the master showman, realized that a smash opening was imperative for the success of any Big Time act. He could have opened with a prosaic cup or saucer, but his selection of a butter dish as an opener was little short of total inspiration. Handing a butter dish to housewives who came, almost to a woman, from Oleomargarine families was masterful. In fact, few people in the crowd had ever even seen a butter dish before and some had to be told how to use it. My mother, a reader of Good Housekeeping, recognized the rare object for what it was, a symbol of Gentility, Good Taste, and the Expansive Life. She was delighted... 

"Mr. Doppler beamed, his black suit crinkling as he clanked out butter dish after butter dish, distributing largess to the multitude. “Next week there’ll be a different piece, lady,” he said over and over. “Maybe a bun warmer, who knows?” Thus he insidiously planted the seed in the mind of each butter-dish clutcher that next week could be even more Exotic. The hackles of desire rose even higher as they filed into the darkened auditorium. “What is a bun warmer?” “You warm buns in it, you idiot!” Snatches of complex Table Etiquette debates drifted back and forth as the mob went up the aisle, butter dishes clanking. 

"...The incredible news of Mr. Doppler’s largess spread through the neighborhood almost instantly. Over back fences, through tangled jungles of clotheslines, up alleys, into basements, up front porches, into candy stores and meat markets, the winged word spread...  The following Friday the Orpheum drew crowds from a three-county area, a jostling throng that stood in long expectant lines to see Blondie Takes a Trip starring Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake and to receive as compensation for that trial by fire a Pearleen-finish Bun Warmer. Mr. Doppler did not fail his public. Bun Warmers flooded Lake County in a massive deluxe Hollywood Finish tide... 

"The third week saw the first cup and saucer combination, a two-piece bonus. The fourth week a petite, delicately modeled egg cup, the first ever seen in the Midwestern states. Week by week the crowds grew larger. The tension mounted as piece after piece was added to family collections. Speculation was rife as to what the next week would bring. Doppler usually just hinted as he and his aides passed out celery dishes and consommé bowls. “Maybe next week an Olive Urn, with pick.” ...

"I remember particularly the night we got The Big Platter, as it became known in our family over the years. The Big Platter—a proper name, like The House On The Hill, The Basement, The Garage. The Big Platter was important. There was only one Big Platter in every complete set of dinnerware, the crowning jewel in Doppler’s diadem...  

"Few of us at the time realized in the exultation of the moment that the end of the party was already in sight. Without warning one night the patrons were handed a finely sculptured grape-encrusted Gravy Boat. This windfall was greeted with hosannas in our innocence. The following week a strangely furtive Doppler dealt out to each female patron another Gravy Boat, all the while mumbling something over and over about: “The shipment was wrong this week. You can exchange this Gravy Boat for a dinner plate next week.”... And the next week, and the next weeks until... 

Well, read the rest  HERE. The chapter "Free! Free!" begins on page 121. 

And all I can say is that I hope that, at the Royal River Casino, a few skillets were hurled.

12 January 2022


Peter Bogdanovich died in the first week of the new year, and the gracious, ever-graceful, and utterly transformative Sidney Poitier.  And then yesterday, Dwayne Hickman.  I mean no disrespect, putting these three very different guys (with very different legacies) in the same paragraph, but Dobie Gillis stood in for a genuine cultural threshold, one worth remarking. 

Let’s start with Max Shulman.  He had a pretty lively run for a good thirty years, starting in the late 1940’s.  His first book hit the bestseller list, and he stayed on it.  He may have dated since, but people gobbled it up.  He was funny.  The novels included The Feather Merchants, Sleep Till Noon, and Rally Round the Flag, Boys!  The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis came out in 1951, a collection of previously published magazine stories.  The movie version – a musical with Debbie Reynolds – was released in ‘53.  Dobie didn’t hit TV until 1959, with Shulman on board as creator, show-runner, and uncredited exec producer.  It ran four seasons.

Dobie was slightly askew from the get-go.  The framing device: Dobie the character, with a sculpture of the Thinker behind him, talks through the action he’s about to encounter in a generally puzzled way, and steps through the Fourth Wall.  His dad, played by Frank Faylen, was a very far cry from Ozzie or Ward Cleaver.  And then there was Maynard.  A caricature, yes, but in the main unthreatening, not genuinely subversive. 


The series turned Frank Faylen and Bob Denver into household names.  It helped make Tuesday Weld a star.  It typecast Dwayne Hickman, who seemed good-natured enough about it, and moved away from acting, into production and programming.  He later commented that Dobie represented the end of innocence, as the Fifties gave way to the Sixties. 

This is, I think, telling.  Shulman, who grew up in a heavily Jewish neighborhood of St. Paul, never engaged with Jewish themes until his last novel, Potatoes Are Cheaper, in 1971.  He himself said that the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint freed him up to tackle Jewishness.  You have to wonder about that little gem, turning it over in your hands and holding it up to the light. 

Dobie is almost aggressively WASP-y.  Is the character a more innocent - or at least less full-frontal – version of Portnoy?  Dobie is girl-crazy, and most of his wounds are self-inflicted, awkwardness being an adolescent trope.  But depending on how deeply you care to dig, it’s fair to say Max doesn’t harbor the hostility toward women that Roth clearly did.  Nor does Max seem to identify as particularly Jewish.  Maybe, though, we’re talking Jewish in the sense Mel Brooks uses, that it’s New York, not so much Jewish per se.  Growing up St. Paul, a little less, nu?  I could be wrong, but Shulman appears to have come through unscathed.  He’s not carrying the burdens of Abraham and Lot.  He isn’t playing the fool to escape bullies, or repurpose injury.

I could be reading way too much into all this.  The cliché of the clown with tears behind his makeup.  I don’t know if Max was always sunny, but he seldom comes across as dour.

So, what is it about Dobie?  Not that he’s Hamlet, mind.  Still, he’s inviting us into his confidences.  This is different from George Burns, say, who used to step out of the action on his show and comment on it; Burns was a monologist, and his comedy was a routine.  Dobie Gillis was   situation comedy, and Dwayne Hickman didn’t step out of character.  His befuddlement was Dobie’s.  Part of it, too, was familiarity.  We’ve all been stuck on a girl like Thalia Menninger, or a guy like Milton Armitage.  (And a trivia question for you: what was Warren Beatty’s big break before Kazan cast him in Splendor in the Grass?)  Dobie is like the rest of us, more or less, wondering how it’s all gonna turn out, even if right at the moment, he’s a little too fixed on whether Thalia’s gonna give him the time of day, let alone some bare tit.  (I made that up.)  I mean he hasn’t realized yet that he’ll never grow out of it.

Dobie Gillis works because Shulman gets the most basic underpinning of comedy, that you establish the familiar, the convincing detail, and whatever the consequences, they arise out of character.  In other words, you’re in on the gag.  You can accept a reversal of expectation.  The punchline is not so much a surprise, as an inevitability.    It may not necessarily be cruel, but it’s always necessary.

Dobie is very much a transitional character, and the show a moment in time.  My mom, for example, thought the books were hysterically funny, the show not so much.  Maybe she saw me as Dobie, and Dwayne Hickman as an imitation.  For a lot of us, Dobie Gillis was an imitation.  Not quite the real thing, but an approximation.  Better than Lassie, or Leave It to Beaver, or the Nelsons, it began to approach the canvas from a less obvious perspective.  It was more generous.  It allowed breathing room for a world beyond the immediate conventions, and broadened its own horizons.

Shulman died in 1988.  Here’s the punchline from the Minnesota Historical Society page, courtesy of Paul Nelson. 

“Among writers born and raised in St. Paul, only F. Scott Fitzgerald has sold more books.  Fitzgerald sold more books; Shulman got more laughs.”

11 January 2022

A Sig Sauer with a Rich Brocade

    Apologies to Michael Bracken for the Guns and Tacos style title. 

    As I've described during several of my blogs, I spend my day meeting my county's most recently arrested individuals. Before I can set a bond, fairness and curiosity require me to know a little bit about what the police say happened. How did this defendant end up in the back seat of the police car? 

    Readers of this blog likely know all of this. Most arrests are made after criminal behavior is witnessed or reported to a patrol officer. If the officer develops probable cause, a reasonable belief that an offense occurred, she makes an arrest and the defendant is taken to jail. I or another magistrate, are then tasked to evaluate the officer's statement of probable cause. The magistrate's review represents the first check in our system of due process. 

    Probable cause affidavits are usually pretty brief. A driver is stopped for speeding and weaving. The officer smells alcohol. Field sobriety tests are failed. A driving while intoxicated arrest gets made and the holiday party comes to an abrupt end. Usually, the reports I read are like that, a concise statement of the offense. They do the job. Occasionally, however, a report jumps out and grabs me with its misfire. Sometimes, the fault lies with the officer; other times the technology is to blame. A few examples:  

Forced Air: From where I sit, it appears that officers are susceptible to word trends. There are influencers, it seems, within the local departments. If one officer drops a word that sounds cool or smart, it could easily catch on with other patrol officers. We all like to be thought of as intelligent. An expansive lexicon demonstrates one's erudition. 

    That, I assume, explains a recent spate of "insufflation," as in "I recovered a bulbous glass pipe used for the insufflation of methamphetamine." The first time I read it, I had to look up insufflation in the dictionary. Mostly used as a medical term, insufflation is the act of blowing something into a body cavity. Meth pipes don't do the smoking for a user. Pipes are used for the inhalation of methamphetamine. 

Jlcoving, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

    More commonly, I think that police suffer from the same problem we all have when we shake our fists and curse autocorrect. Many departments rely on a voice-to-text reporting system. The software allows officers to dictate and call in reports. This system gets patrol officers back into the field more quickly. It does, however, occasionally result in errors. 

The Freedom Pipe: Like Otis on The Andy Griffith Show, I have a defendant or two, generally homeless, who will walk into the sheriff's department and refuse to leave. This typically happens when the weather is inclement. If they disobey a deputy's orders to depart, the deputy has little choice but to arrest the defendant for criminal trespass. (Readers might find a reason to fault our social safety net here, but that's not the point of this column.)

    I laugh when I read that the defendant "refused to leave the bong desk." In my visits to jail, I frequently pass the bond desk. Maybe this explains the employees' good mood (or the defendant's refusal to depart).

Chalk: I read the occasional family violence report where the defendant "chalked the victim." At first, I thought it was some hip street term, like, "the police will draw a chalk line around your dead body." Nope, a computer's mishearing of the word "choke." Choke sometimes also comes in as "chock." (Chocks are the blocks that go under car or airplane tires.) I don't know what that might mean in street slang. 

Bob Embleton / Crime Scene?, Riverside, Upton-Upon-Severn
Paper or Plastic: Last week, I read about a family violence victim who was struck on the bag of her head. The report did not detail whether the defendant also violated a local ban on single-use grocery sacks. 

Sham-munition: My personal favorite over the last few weeks. As I've related in an earlier blog, the most recent Texas legislature placed a high priority on handguns being holstered. Lots of people legally may carry handguns in lots of places in my state so long as they are toted in a holster. To make probable cause, the police officer must inform the judge whether the defendant properly secured his weapon. Consequently, I've read several reports recently about defendants being caught with upholstered weapons. Although I trust the officer meant that the gun wasn't legally strapped to the defendant's shoulder, hip, or ankle, I prefer the mental image of the chenille-wrapped Smith and Wesson. 

    This is my first blog for 2022. Let me close by wishing each of you a safe and healthy new year. May you find the write word for every situation and may your software never correct it to something else. 

    Until next time. 

10 January 2022

Resolving Anew to Make No New Year's Resolutions

I start every new year with one form or another of this manifesto. I have plenty of precedent.

"Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." For many years, I've been running around attributing this to Proverbs in the Old Testament, but oops! it's from the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:34.

"One day at a time." Alcoholics Anonymous. They also say, "It works!"

"Nothing is set in stone." That one is a proverb.

In 2019, according to statistics on discoverhealthyhabits.com, 48% of those who made resolutions wanted to lose weight. 59% wanted to exercise more and 54% wanted to eat healthier, and I bet those were looking sideways in the mirror too. In 2020, the last two made the most popular list. My take on that is that resolution-makers are getting more ingenious in wanting magic when they look at the scale. In general baby boomers and midwesterners care the most about losing weight. What percentage of these January hopefuls have kept their resolutions by the end of the year? The stats range between 2% and 12%. According to cnbc.com, "Diet and weight loss have grown to be a $71 billion industry, yet according to studies— 95% of diets fail."

Let's rephrase that, because I'm dying to use QED in a sentence. 95% of diets fail; diet and weight loss are a $71 billion dollar industry; QED. And resolving to lose weight every January, with the end result of losing and gaining and losing and gaining hundreds or even thousands of pounds over a lifetime that represents the triumph of unrealistic expectations—or superstition—or self-hate, if I may put my shrink hat on for a moment, is an unhealthy, even dangerous waste of time.

But let's put weight and dieting aside. The stats I mentioned say that Gen Z, today's kids, make resolutions about finding love, dressing better, and improving their style. Millennials resolve to get a raise or a promotion. Oh, you poor kids! America has taught you that life is nothing but a series of goals, and everything in between is panting, sweating, and striving. Reading between the lines, I notice that the competition and winning that are implicit in a goal-oriented society have gone underground. Today's corporate-speak is all about "teams." But it's meaningless. If you writers and appreciators of words are close to anyone who works in such an environment, you'll know what I mean.

Notice too, what a bill of goods the new crop of kids have been sold about what matters. Lumping love in with dress and style, whatever that means? And making resolutions about it? I'd be better pleased with them if they resolved to hook up less and pay less attention to how they look, more to how they feel and how much they care about others.

But to get back to my starting point, it's not really the nature of the resolutions that puts me off them. It's the fact that I have achieved so much peace of mind from dealing with my life one day—and sometimes shorter increments, if that was all I could handle—at a time. It's amazing how easy it is not to feel overwhelmed when I'm not fretting about what I'm supposed to achieve next month, next week, or even tomorrow. If it's not today's problem, I'm free to turn my attention to what I need to accomplish—and enjoy—today. And that's enough. It works. It really does.

By the way, my posting date came around a week later than I thought it would when I originally wrote this piece. How many of you made New Year's resolutions on January 1 this year—and have already broken them?

09 January 2022

Writing Mysteries in the Age of COVID-19

As always, I’m curious on how to plot a murder mystery and have been peeking at how death investigations have changed.

Since COVID-19, mystery writers attempting to hide a murder have a different landscape to deal with. If a person is COVID-19 positive, even if they wouldn’t die from the disease - this is far more possible with the Omicron variant - a murder via poison at home would be easier to conceal.

Recently, our jurisdiction changed the rules stating, “Autopsies will no longer be performed on someone who is suspected to have died from COVID-19 unless there is another factor of great significance, such as a homicide.”

So, without evidence of blunt force trauma or anything obviously untoward, a murder via poison in a COVID-19 positive person can be more easily hidden.

Is this true in other jurisdictions?

“During the pandemic, many sick people have stayed at home and died there rather than seeking help at hospitals overwhelmed with coronavirus patients.

“In April in New York City, for example, a reported 200 residents died at home each day, compared with 20 such deaths before the pandemic…If family or friends say the person had symptoms consistent with COVID-19, the coroner's office will typically do a nasal swab to test for the virus, he says. If the test is positive and the office can determine the cause of death without an autopsy, one will generally not be performed.”

A review of the literature shows, “The literature is dominated by appeals for more autopsies to be performed…The main reason for the great reluctance worldwide to perform autopsies seems to be concerns about infectivity emanating from deceased persons.”

In the United States, there’s the added problem of cost, availability of specialists and the vast number COVID-19 deaths.

“Hospitals are not required to provide autopsy services, and in those that do perform them, the procedure’s costs are not directly covered by most private insurance or by Medicare…Added into the mix: The number of experts who can actually perform autopsies is critically low. Estimates suggest the U.S. has only a few hundred forensic pathologists but could use several thousand — and less than one in 100 graduating medical school students enters the profession each year.”

Add to this the fact that there are almost 860k COVID-19 deaths to date, the volume of detailed death investigations, let alone autopsies, of those who die out of hospital would overwhelm the system. So they are not done.

In hospital deaths are also not autopsied but with COVID-19 restrictions on visitors it would be hard to write a plausible mystery involving a murder in hospital.

So if autopsies aren’t done for most COVID-19 deaths, is toxicology conducted?

“How are forensic toxicology tests done? At the time of the autopsy, collection of blood, urine, and tissue samples is done in preparation for the toxicology tests, says Barbarajean Magnani, PhD, MD, chairwoman of the Toxicology Resource committee for the College of American Pathologists.”

So, given the concerns about infection from COVID-19 would collection of samples occur? I have not found evidence to suggest it is done.

While this certainly makes for intriguing options for writing mysteries, it’s a huge loss to science. Fulsome and numerous autopsies are the one crucial way to obtain information about a disease. For scientific purposes, more rather than fewer autopsies should be conducted. However, the limitations of time, personnel, well-ventilated facilities and PPE have limited autopsies and we have lost a great deal of data. Because of this, there’s been a pushback from many to perform more autopsies.

“The results from the analyzed studies show that autopsies are essential in the COVID-19 pandemic. They enable a more differentiated assessment of mortality. More important than the determination of the cause of death, however, is the fact that only the autopsy (including histological and virological examinations) opens up the possibility of investigating the spread of the virus in the body, the involvement of various organ systems, but also the late effects of the disease…

There are few valid reasons not to perform autopsies in COVID-19 deceased if the technical equipment meets certain minimum standards. It is easy to protect oneself against infection during the autopsy. Both clinical and forensic pathologists – preferably in cooperation – play an important role in gaining knowledge about the new disease as a basis for therapeutic measures and global pandemic control.”

I do wonder how mysteries written in the age of COVID-19 will be different because of the new landscape of death investigations.

08 January 2022

First Up, Opening Paragraphs

First up for 2022: an ode to opening paragraphs. Great openers are art within the art. A great opener crackles--and promises--such that Reader Me recognizes I'm in expert hands. Bang, I've heard a call to fiction adventure. Sure, the short story exists to deliver a meaningful end moment. Those seeds get sown from note one, in a symphonic sense. Without a first movement, the big honking finish risks hitting flat. I might've put the story down altogether.

Openings aren't just about raw hook. I could put dogs or babies in trouble and catch a reader's attention. The story darn well better unfold with dogs or babies in a core, connected way, or else readers will spot my shenanigans and curse my name. Hook sustains from the right thematic launch toward that big honking end. This can be subtle or in-your-face. The best openers are bit of both. 

It doesn't even have to be a single paragraph. The opener can unfold, and it often does. Here's a two-paragrapher by an American gent named Edgar Allan Poe. You might've heard of him. 

"The Cask of Amontillado" -- 1846

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitively settled — but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.

It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation.

Poe is public domain and widely studied, so his (long) passages make for prime forensics. Two things jump out as "Amontillado" opens. One, a clinical certainty to the narrator, Montresor. Our guy is having quite the scheme-fest. He's all in. He's verbose about it. Meanwhile, Poe leaves no room for confusion on what's what and the tone to expect. Revenge, punishment, and just look how Poe sticks the landing: "immolation." A word of extreme violence. Readers then would've understood Poe meant Fortunado would be a sacrifice. But to what? Justice? Family? We don't know.

That's my second reaction. Montresor rails about those thousand injuries but can't be bothered to specify a single one, not even the supposed grave insult. Poe leaves open that Fortunado might not have done a thing to Montresor. They might not even be rivals. With no gauge on injury versus justice, we can't rule out "Amontillado" as cold-blooded murder. Hello, horror element.

Poe checks a lot of boxes here: Hook, tone, subject, theme, conflict, the ending foreshadowed. Some things are more indirect. There is almost nothing to suggest place and time other than Fortunado's name and the title. Poe doesn't clear up until paragraph three that this is Italy and not Spain. Leaving out place from the opener de-prioritizes it and frames "Amontillado" as tackling larger questions. 

This is what first paragraphs can do. Should do. It's not 1846 anymore, and authors need to get things boiling faster. Fast, though, can be too fast. Or, as Kurt Vonnegut said:

"To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages."

 — Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction

A million times yes. It's a false choice between speed and set-up. Give me your hinted layers, your intrigue, your seeds of character, and give them right from jump street. Reader Me starts every story wanting exactly what the author did: a pay-off. First things first, though. That big resonant finish hangs on a well-constructed opener. 

Write strong in 2022, everybody.

* * * 

Bonus other favorite first paragraphs:

  • Ben Fountain, "Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera"
  • Tim Gautreaux, "Gone to Water"
  • Lorrie Moore, "Debarking"
  • Flannery O'Connor, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"
  • Ron Rash, "Something Rich and Strange"

07 January 2022

Three Books in 2022

Since about 2011, I've kept a spreadsheet of what I've read over a given year. Thanks to multiple formats, the number's been as high as 100. Thanks to Audible, it's never gone as low as 30. Last year, I read 52. One of them was a book on speed-reading.

I read widely. I'm working my way through Stephen King's back list, and with any luck, Billy Summers will be one of the last books I read this year. I do a rotation. Non-fiction of some sort, crime, science fiction, an indie writer who's caught my attention, a classic, and King. Part, but not all, of the classic side includes Harry Bloom's novel list from How to Read. I'll spare you the rest as the non-fiction tends to be all over the map, and SF is not really the purpose of Sleuthsayers. So, let's focus on crime.

Every year since about the mid-2000s, I've started off with Ken Bruen, mainly the Jack Taylor series. Assuming 2022 does not involve kaiju, nuclear annihilation, another great plague, alien invasion, or Ken writing one more Jack Taylor, I will probably finish the series in January of 2023. For January, 2022, I'm reading Galway Girl. I was not a big fan of Em when she appeared in the series. I couldn't figure out if Ken was passing the baton to a young woman even more rage-prone than Jack or something else. (Spoiler alert: Something else.) But then, at the end of In the Galway Silence, he introduces a woman who is a clone of Em, and, it seems, by choice. She calls herself Jericho, and yes, she is there to make Jack's life a living hell. Only, whenever someone wants to torment Jack, they have to get in line. At the head of the line, they inevitably find out Jack calls that "Tuesday."  Ken doesn't so much write a novel with the Taylor series as much as write violent epic poems set in Galway. Galway Girl is proving to be a dark, bleak novel full of nihilism and death. It's a marvelous way to start off a new year full of hope and optimism. (Or at least the fleeting hope that the hangover from 2020 will finally lift.)

The next crime novel on the list is SA Cosby's Razor Blade Tears. I'd like to compare Cosby to Ken Bruen, but the first thing by him that I read, Black Top Wasteland, I found too optimistic. Seriously, though, I read Wasteland last year after connection with Shawn online. It was probably the best crime novel I'd read in a long time, so both Razor Blade Tears and his upcoming All Sinners Bleed are on this year's TBR stack. Cosby writes about the South, does not shy away from race, yet writes about a world not too dissimilar from where I grew up, which was seventies and eighties Rust Belt. Like Blacktop, Blade is about an ordinary man without privilege who has his life upended by crime, in this case, the murder of his son. What's amazing about Cosby's work is the characters may lead a different life from most of us, but the landmarks on their path are quite often all-too-familiar.

Third on the list is Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles. Set in 1954, its premise has a lot in common with SA Cosby's work. A young man released from a juvenile work farm is driven home to Nebraska. He intends to pick up his recently orphaned brother and head for California to start a new life. Two of his fellow inmates have secretly tagged along with another plan: They want to take him to New York. Lincoln Highway covers more familiar territory for me geographically, rolling across the Midwest, though it's a time when the steel mills still roared, Studebakers still rolled off the assembly lines alongside Packards, and steam powered the railways.

There will be more, obviously. Someone who read 52 books last year, with every sixth Kindle, paperback, or hardcover a crime novel, these three are only enough to get me through early spring.

So, what's on your TBR stack for this year?